But service to clients continues to rely on the same values at this fifth-generation Texas agency
“Insurance will be the next big industry.” That’s what W. G. Garrett Jr. and L. D. Garrett heard when they mustered out of World War I. But they both had other jobs, working for Captain Schreiner at a general merchandise store in their hometown of Kerrville, Texas. It was one of the first businesses in the town, established in 1869.
Well, they believed what they had heard, so they asked Captain Schreiner if they could sell insurance after hours. Bob Schmerbeck, former owner and a producer at Garrett Insurance, says the Garretts, his two great uncles, were given the green light by Schreiner as long as they gave him “seven to seven every day. After that, they were free to sell insurance.”
So, they opened the agency’s doors in 1918 and worked there part time. The first full-time employee came on board in 1933. Their nephew and Bob’s father, R. L. Schmerbeck Jr., was a teller at a local bank until the Bank Holiday occurred and he lost his job. The Garretts asked him if he wanted to go into the insurance business.
“He became the first full-time employee and ran the agency until 1941, when he volunteered for the Army Air Corps,” Bob says. “My mother and W. G. Garrett’s daughter ran the agency until he returned in 1945 and was named managing partner with the Garretts as partners.”
Under the elder Schmerbeck’s leadership, the agency became a prominent part of the community, providing insurance for a large percentage of the town’s citizens. As the agency’s personal lines business grew, there was a need for additional help and one employee was added. Then, in 1966, Bob joined and helped to further fuel the growth, as he used his sales skills to bring on more clients and to sell additional coverages to current ones.
By 1974, Kerrville was enjoying a population boom as it started growing as a retirement community. “The increased volume this brought about gave us the wherewithal to offer to purchase the agency from the Garretts,” Bob says, “and they readily agreed.”
Getting involved in the community
“When I joined the agency,” Bob says, “Kerrville was a small town. We knew everybody and everybody knew us. They knew that Dad and I were men of integrity who could be trusted to provide them with the right coverage at a fair price. We even had some commercial lines clients who were primarily influenced by the Garretts, who were well known and respected in the business community.
“But, as the population expanded rapidly, we could no longer just count on word of mouth. We needed to become more systematic in our community involvement. Dad became active in Kiwanis and I continue to be active in Rotary. We also both were active in the Chamber of Commerce. We developed a lot of new contacts through these efforts, as well as cementing relationships with people we already insured. This also served to enhance our reputation as men of integrity who placed helping the community at the forefront of our responsibilities. While it was definitely ‘soft’ marketing, it was certainly successful.”
Even so, Bob continues, “This remains basically a small town. There are only 22,000 people in the city and, thanks to the beautiful scenery and location, it has attracted some prominent people, including a former astronaut and a number of well-known artists. And they are clients of the agency. That has broadened our reach and enhanced our reputation simply through our association with these individuals.”
Today, that community involvement continues to be a significant part of Garrett Insurance, with “agency principals having leadership roles in service organizations, visual and performing arts groups, university governance, healthcare and many others.” In one example, Bob and his wife, Shirley, chaired the fundraising committee for a community hospital that raised $16 million.
Technology as a service tool
In 1986, the next generation joined the agency as Bob’s son, Stephen, came on board and brought with him a very important skill—as Bob puts it—“He was ‘computer savvy.’”
“The day I started,” Stephen remembers, “we had one monochrome computer. That had to change. I viewed a big part of my job as keeping us on the leading edge of technology so we are able to work as efficiently as possible.”
Stephen continues, “I have a somewhat different approach to the agency business. I’ve seen the mergers and acquisitions and am convinced that, in order to survive, you either ‘eat or get eaten.’ In addition to building our technology capabilities to state of the art, I also saw a need to carefully expand our footprint and the coverages we made available to our clients.
“We had just one location when I joined,” he adds. “Today we have three, as we have purchased several agencies that provide a great fit with our way of doing business and that have expanded our capabilities by providing expertise in several key niches.”
The office in Fredericksburg has a niche in agriculture. “That’s a big opportunity in this area,” Stephen says. “We added an Elite Certified Agriculture Specialist to our staff to lead this department. My son, Caleb, joined us last year with an interest in further developing this niche, so he’s in that office and doing great. The office in Conroe, which we acquired last year, has a great propane niche.
“What we are trying to create is an agency where anyone can come in and get the coverage that they need and the services to support them,” Stephen says proudly.
“This combines both new and old technologies,” Bob adds. “Thanks to Stephen’s efforts, our technology makes it easier for our clients to communicate with us in whatever manner they prefer. Our agency portal, email and texting are very popular with many
of our customers, but so are face-to-face meetings—and we often meet with clients after hours and on weekends, if those times are what fit their needs.”
Adding to the family
“For many years, we relied on our immediate family to help us with growth,” Bob continues. “My wife served as the agency controller and my mom continued to be active in the agency, especially after my dad passed away in 1988. But we also recognized that we needed to add staff as the workload began to grow.”
“Grandpa taught me a very important lesson,” points out Stephen, who purchased the agency from his dad in 2010. “He said that we are all Indians, there are no chiefs. I’ve tried to keep that lesson with me as we’ve expanded. The people here are all equal.
Whenever we consider a new direction, we explain our reasoning and ask for input. And we listen. At the same time, we emphasize that their families come first. If someone needs time off for any reason, the other people here will support them and cover their tasks until they return. This is their work family and we all work together to succeed.”
“In a lot of ways,” Bob picks up, “the award that makes me proudest is our recognition as a best place to work. Our people nominated us and voted for us. We have made it very clear to them that they are the key to our success.
“At our Christmas party last year, I told them that Rough Notes was going to be writing an article about the agency and they were extremely proud. They view this article as an affirmation of their efforts to make this a great agency.”
“We are celebrating our 100th anniversary this year as a family-owned business,” Bob concludes. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to keep our legacy alive. We’ve always been considered a partner for each one of our clients and our reputation with our circles of influence is impeccable.
“We never want insurance to be a ‘fly in the ointment’ when a personal lines or commercial lines customer is entering into an agreement that requires proof of insurance” he adds. We have established a reliable track record with title companies, lenders and real estate agents. They know that if one of their clients needs an insurance quote, they can send them to Garrett Insurance and be certain they will receive a quote quickly from a reliable insurance company.”
“And that is another key component of our success,” Stephen adds. “We have developed a great relationship with our insurance company partners. We have several companies where we have premier status and know what their appetites are; we know which company will provide the best coverage for a particular client.
“Coverage is more important than commission,” he continues. “We want a long-term relationship with our clients and want them to have that same kind of relationship with an insurance company that wants their business. We have picked a few companies that really want to write business in this area. The result is the best coverage and service for our clients and a continuation of our legacy as an agency with integrity.”
Rough Notes magazine is proud to celebrate Garrett Insurance’s 100th anniversary by recognizing the agency as our Agency of the Month. The legacy of integrity that Bob has supported for more than half of that time is well earned. “I’ve been here 51 years,” Bob says, “and I still love working with my clients and don’t plan on hanging up my spurs any time soon.”
Dennis H. Pillsbury retired in 2016 as executive editor of Rough Notes magazine.